Not Full(er) of himself: Late-blooming Fuller galvanizes Bears defense

By Robert Zeglinski
Contributor

When an NFL first-round pick doesn’t provide immediate gratifying results, the human tendency to write their career prospects off is all too easy.

It’s second nature in a league and game often more demanding in the present moment – at least by perception – than many assortments of blue collar, red blood and dangerous professions. The only luxury that players selected in the money round of the NFL Draft receive is patience and understanding. Patience of which stems from their organization refusing to give up on a lucrative investment because of rampant disappointment, perennially hoping the investment has a crystallizing moment before the glass breaks.

Understanding is seamlessly translated into endearing terms and phrases of “raw” “young, green player” and “still learning the ropes,” all of which are inherently designed to indirectly alleviate pressure on someone who would’ve been better served extending their stay in college football.  No one else on a professional football roster is afforded the leeway a first-round pick enjoys on the surface. And no one else on a team has to contend with the weightiest of blatant underlying criticism when an ostensible franchise player has proven to be anything but.

But sometimes, patience is more than a warranted justification or rationalization for early pitfalls.

Sometimes, patience affords a talented prospect time to bloom. It lets them blossom and morph into the cornerstone they were destined to be. As with many circles of life, some people dominate from the starting gun and jump into the water already perfect swimmers. Others need breathing room before they figure “it” out and can float on their own. Most everyone has the same destination in the end.

Two years ago, Kyle Fuller was an also-ran, an afterthought, and an abject failure on the Bears’ scouting department for not digging deeper to a more viable, reliable, and useful player. After an uneven start to his professional career marked by a seemingly endless assortment of flash plays both created and surrendered, the former 2014 first-round pick missed the entirety of the 2016 season due to undisclosed knee issues.

When the Bears neglected to pick up the fifth-year option on Fuller’s first-round rookie contract—a move that would’ve offered Fuller every semblance of long-term security—the veteran defensive back was lost in the wings. He was in the worst place a person can find themselves: Purgatory, with no escape ladder in sight to pull himself out.

Whatever was faulty with Fuller’s inner workings then, it’s not an issue anymore. The broken switch with no fuse he once possessed is clicking with a fresh power source. Where Fuller finds himself is sitting among the very best at his position in a place of aggressive peace on the boundary.

Since 2017, after his best impression of football’s Waldo, Fuller has transformed into the premier cornerback an eccentric Phil Emery once steadfastly believed he would become.

The 27-year-old’s 123 tackles, 43 passes defended, and nine interceptions over the course of the 2017 and 2018 seasons combined, placed him comfortably among the league’s proposed elite cornerbacks. A First-Team All-Pro selection last season – making Fuller the first Bears cornerback to garner such an honor since Charles Tillman in 2012 – punctuated his late-arriving but nevertheless meteoric rise. A lucrative contract where the Bears were forced to outbid the Packers for his services was the financial exclamation point for a player who could finally stand up on his own two legs alone.

When anyone ever discusses the merits of the Bears, their all-encompassing defense, and any Super Bowl windows, the first few names that come to mind are on speed dial. Khalil Mack. Akiem Hicks. Eddie Jackson. A trio of game-changers. The envy of every porous NFL defense. The main personified reason the Bears are placed on a championship pedestal, even if only in hypothetical terms. A more accurate billing would fit Fuller in this same hallowed group as this Bears Cerberus and in turn transform them into the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or any other Biblical parallel. Aside from the brilliance of Mack, who may be one of the greatest pass rushers to ever step in between the lines, Fuller’s talent is every bit worthy of being compared against the Bears’ top players.

It’s Mack, the face of Chicago’s entire operation, who has the most fitting assessment of his cornerback partner. Mack’s endorsement doesn’t come packaged in words or in monologues, but in emphatic action. Last January, when the Bears were preoccupied in celebrating their NFC North title in almost a decade, it was Mack who insisted Fuller sit in on any requested interviews with the press. It was Mack who gave Fuller a quiet vote of confidence by confirming he was included in all proceedings. Fuller’s importance to the resurgence of the Bears can never be overstated by this respect. Mack is the straw that stirs the Bears drink, but Fuller has never drawn the short straw.

Over the course of his five-year winding NFL journey, Fuller has never been one to revel in the spotlight. When a camera’s been in his face, encroaching upon everyone’s coveted personal space, Fuller has managed to be a professional and provide the requisite soundbite or interview, but nothing more. For a star cornerback, he conducts himself more like an undrafted grinder near the bottom of the roster.

His job is to excel at the football-playing, not to discuss why he’s so proficient at laying down punishment on a helpless receiver in the flat. His job is to lock down respective No. 1 receivers, certainly not to blow up his public profile over yet another clutch, back-breaking interception for the offense. If Fuller didn’t make so many plays, if he didn’t flash game in and game out, you wouldn’t be remiss in forgetting his existence.

Perhaps that’s what gives Fuller his edge. By keeping his emotions and personal feelings close to the vest, he’s motivated himself to reach his potential, to attain brilliance. More likely, it’s a precise metaphor for how most of this defense operates: their play and only their play does the talking, and their bite is considerably stronger than their bark. And their stars, if Fuller is any indication, channel indignation from skeptics into a dread-inducing force to be reckoned with. That it happened later than expected for some of them, changes nothing of the fear they inspire in the competition.

Robert is an editor and writer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. 

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